President Trump has declared this week as one to recognize public servants, both praising federal employees for their “tireless dedication” and “selfless service” and calling on them to improve their efficiency and productivity.
Trump formally designated May 6-12 as Public Service Recognition Week, an event celebrated annually since 1985. In a statement announcing the declaration, Trump thanked federal workers for the “profound difference” they make in the country.
“During Public Service Recognition Week, we acknowledge our nation’s civil servants for their hard work and willingness to serve their fellow citizens,” Trump said.
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These compliments were a break from the usual rhetoric from a president who has often disparaged the federal workforce. Trump has referred to civil servants part of the “deep state,” written off agencies such as the FBI as “in tatters” and indicated the government is littered with thousands of positions that need not exist. He has expressed those ideas through policy, calling on all federal agencies to slash their rolls and organize themselves more efficiently. In a recently issued management agenda, Trump suggested many federal jobs had become obsolete and called for employees to be “reskilled” so they could tackle responsibilities less suitable for automation.
“It is critical for federal employees to provide excellent service and wise stewardship of taxpayer resources,” Trump said in his Public Service Week announcement. “Through the [President's Management Agenda], my administration has established a transparent accountability structure, which includes quarterly reviews and public updates, to identify both successes and areas that need further attention.”
Trump also suggested federal employees should improve their performance.
“We are duty-bound to the American people to operate at the highest levels of capability and competency,” Trump said. “I am confident that, in keeping with the agenda, our devoted civil servants will execute their missions so that our government becomes more efficient and more productive for the benefit of all Americans.”
Trump’s words were unusual for the typical public service week proclamation, which the White House has issued intermittently since 1987. In this first such declaration, President Reagan—whose administration was also critical of the federal bureaucracy and attempted to reduce its size and reach—had only complimentary things to say about the nation’s civil servants.
“Our federal employees are skilled public servants who work diligently every day to build a better America,” Reagan said in 1987. “Many of them are our friends, neighbors, and community leaders. In their spare time, they can be found doing volunteer work in our churches, schools, clubs, and other organizations. We can be grateful for the deep commitment of the men and women of our federal workforce.”
President George H.W. Bush also had only positive comments in his proclamations, calling federal employees “dedicated public servants” who “contribute substantially to the social, political and economic stability of our nation.”
President Clinton, who, through his “Reinventing Government” initiative also sought to slash the federal workforce, issued a proclamation in 1994 that, like Trump, called for a more streamlined human capital management. Clinton noted in declaring the recognition week that government was “confronting the challenge of serving the public more efficiently and effectively” and praised his administration’s efforts to reduce the time and costs “wasted in unproductive adversarial proceedings” between labor and management.
President Obama effusively praised federal employees in his statements, though he did not issue one until 2015, according to an archive maintained by the University of California, Santa Barbara. He noted his own administration’s unfavorable policies toward federal employees, such as three years of a pay freeze. Trump has proposed freezing federal employees’ pay in 2019.
“Civil servants are scientists and teachers, social workers and first responders—they are the leaders of today's progress and the innovators of tomorrow's breakthroughs,” Obama said in 2015. “With determination and resolve, they defend our country overseas and work to widen the circle of opportunity and prosperity here at home. And despite tough circumstances—including pay freezes, budget cuts, sequestration, and a political climate that too often does not sufficiently value their work—these exceptional leaders continue to make real the fundamental truth that people who love their country can change it.”
He added: “With more than 2 million civilian workers and more than 1 million active duty service members, our federal workforce represents extraordinary possibility.”
In 2016, Obama took the recognition week proclamation as an opportunity to boast of his reform efforts, such as banning the box and boosting interagency collaboration.
Despite discussing room for improvement, Trump said federal employees make America “better, safer and stronger.”
“This week,” Trump said, “we honor their efforts and extend our gratitude for their exceptionalism and steadfast commitment to serving the American people.”